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Customers want to know how businesses make money

2013 February 3

 

Strange things grow in the darkness of many businesses’ economic models. If you think that businesses serve the needs of customers and make money by earning their trust, think again. Businesses are platforms balancing the needs of multiple constituencies, and their economic model is rarely what you think. More importantly, businesses don’t want you to understand how they earn their profits, because if you found out, you’d know many are not telling you the truth.

When you go to a grocery store, you assume the products being offered are those that the consumers want. You envision a customer democracy driving shelf space. But the grocery store is responding as much to the spiffing from suppliers as to the needs of customers. Customers matter some (the grocery store cannot really do without the brands that people love), but shelf allocation is really driven by the rebate terms granted by suppliers to the store, not by what you want.

If you’re an investor who’s placed money with a large bank (or even more so a private bank), you may naively believe your advisor has your best interest at heart. But in many cases, your advisor is investing into assets managed by the asset management division of the bank, with the asset management division “retroceding” a good chunk of its profit to the banking division. How can you trust your agent when you have no idea what incentives he responds to?

Why are investment bankers so despised? Because nobody understands how they generate their money. Given the darkness in which they operate, we assume they’re making tons of money (which is largely true), using reprehensible schemes (which is sometimes true). The inability to identify the real costs and risks involved drives a general suspicion. If we were to understand costs and risks, corporate CFOs and treasurers (and the public at large) could start trusting investment bankers again.

At Google.com, you may think the search results you’re provided are the result of some objective assessment of the relevance to the question you posed. But Google makes money from its advertisers, not from you, so whom do you think they cater to when you ask your question? They have resisted any probe from regulators on how their search algorithm works (most recently in Europe), which would be the only way to figure out whether the search is indeed honest, or whether it tilts results to Google-biased suggestions? As a result, many of us may use Google as the dominant option, but few of us trust them.

At Internet sites like Lending Tree, TV advertising urges you to come to them because they will get lenders to compete to lend you money. But what they really do is “source” you as a customer and bring you tied and gagged to one of their chosen (often second-tier) suppliers based on some pre-arrangement they’ve struck with them.

All of that is as old as business. Newspapers, radio and television have always been financed by advertisers, while pretending to be accountable to their readers, listeners, or viewers. Large cultural institutions like symphonies, ballets, and museums routinely raise more money from grants and donations than from people paying for performances or visits at those institutions. As a result, the editorial or content integrity of those institutions is constantly in question, since the economic model does not match the purported consumer-oriented intent.

So what’s wrong with that? The lack of transparency is what’s wrong. Customers should have the right to know the economics of the businesses they patronize. They should understand the motivation of the store being spiffed by suppliers, or how much money the asset management division earns from their business with the retail banking division. If they did, they might decide to not buy from those businesses, go to more transparent suppliers who do the same thing but make it transparent, or choose to engage directly with the other members of the ecosystem. After all, grocery stores increasingly invite customers to talk to their suppliers on issues of sustainability for example, so why not do it on price or profit issues? They might help small suppliers struggling to break into the store shelves’ line up without paying a ransom, or punish spiffing suppliers who over-buy space.

I have repeatedly found that people, when confronted with the economic reality of business, make intelligent choices. Customers want their businesses (and their businesses’ suppliers) to be successful. They’re often eager to participate in the co-creation of the business’ economic model. The only time where they want to punish businesses is when they’re not honest with them, as has happened with car dealers playing back-room pricing games: consumers have deservedly pushed the industry close to zero profit on the sale of new cars through the power of Internet transparency.

In the future, economic models will be increasingly the result of a co-creation between customers and suppliers, with businesses earning their profit through the intermediation they create between them. Making your business model transparent is the first rule in the new economic order.

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